On ViewLegion of Honor
Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?
May 7 – November 7, 2021
On ViewGladstone Gallery
May 6 – June 25, 2021
Thin gold ribs protrude from the torso of Wangechi Mutu’s MamaRay (2020), a bronze manta ray-woman sculpture burnished to a dark brown, almost black, patina. The oval head, crowned by a deep widow’s peak dotted by truncated domes of varying sizes, features wide-set eyes that are narrowed to slits. Within the white cube of Gladstone Gallery, it exudes a sense of self-possession, even hauteur. At the Legion of Honor, another edition of Mama Ray is installed in the Court of Honor, an outdoor pavilion flanked by the museum’s iconic neoclassical columns. There, Mama Ray sits next to an enlarged version of Rodin’s The Thinker and a glass pyramid similar to I.M. Pei’s at the Louvre. It’s a fitting entrance to a feisty dialogue between Mutu’s exhibition I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? and the Legion of Honor’s European collection.
Unlike a traditional solo show, the works in I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? are limited to one or two per room on the first floor. While the exhibition, organized by Legion of Honor curator Claudia Schmuckli, is characterized as an intervention in the museum, the apportionment of Mutu’s collages and sculptures dilutes its overall strength, particularly in the galleries devoted to Auguste Rodin, where plaster studies, marble busts, and bronze casts—including the monumental The Three Shades (1898)—threaten to overwhelm. Nonetheless, Rodin’s “art of living surfaces,” as Rainer Maria Rilke termed it, provides a beguiling complement to Mutu’s own sculptures. A gnarled oak branch forms the ossature of Sentinel IV (2020), while paper pulp produces a leathery surface the color of terracotta. Sinuous, organic forms evade capture by the eye; Sentinel IV seems to reconfigure its structure at different angles. Likewise, Rodin’s highly worked figures mimic the suppleness of skin and the flexibility of the human form, so much so that he was once accused of casting from a live model.
In other galleries, Mutu’s intervention is more bellicose. In the collage Ox Pecked (2018), a fling of red-billed oxpeckers, native to Mutu’s Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, dive toward a female figure sitting on a rocky outcrop. Her body is mottled with nature’s fiery brilliance: flowing magma takes the place of blood vessels, while her skin channels the vibrancy of solar flares. The figure’s facial expression is a mixture of intense pain and resignation. Ox Pecked conjures the Greek myth of Prometheus, a Titan who gifted fire to human beings and then, as punishment, was chained to a rock, where an eagle ate his regenerated liver every day. The Promethean tale is marked not just by pain but by repetition. Mutu centers a dark-skinned woman as a modern-day Prometheus who looks out at a room dominated by busts sculpted by Rodin: Victor Hugo, Henri Rochefort, Honoré de Balzac. In doing so, she nods to the overwhelming lack of diversity in representation past and present, as well as to the legacy of European colonization perpetrated during Rodin’s lifetime.
Despite Mutu’s trenchant critique, the placement of her work suggests an equivocal answer to the exhibition title. I am Speaking, Can You Hear Me? (2020) consists of a pair of figures facing each other. Large conch shells and sections of wood function as oversized ears, as though to magnify their listening capabilities. The two figures might hear what is said, but are they paying attention? One of them enacts a deception surely familiar to anyone who has been an unwilling confidant: an ear toward its neighbor, it feigns attentiveness while peering over the other’s shoulder toward the gallery’s Flemish paintings. These works include portraits of severe Dutch courtiers resplendent in lace cuffs and winking gold rings, several of which gaze past Mutu’s sculpture onto an expanse of lilac-hued wall. The gallery is an example of self-containment—hearing without listening.
At Gladstone, Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures stand alone, but at the Legion of Honor they mount a meta-critique of their environment. Her fusion of animal, woman, and mythological creature presents a hybridity opposed to the self-reflexivity of 20th-century modernism which, as Brian O’Doherty detailed, was partly sustained by the pristine sanctum of the gallery.1 Mutu does not condemn this modernist past so much as subvert its tropes. Crocodylus (2020) and Mama Ray are monumental in size and fabricated from richly aged bronze, evocations of the ancient past and futuristic possibilities—a nod to modernism’s different registers. Yet they are not stewards of heroic masculinity; Mutu’s vision is distinctly female and privileges harmony with nature over mastery, as evidenced by the imperceptible transitions from human to reptile in Crocodylus. Since the publication of O’Doherty’s essays, New York galleries and the artists shown within have changed, even if the white walls remain.
What feels missing from the seamless construction of Mutu’s recent bronzes is the sense of maximalist whimsy that defines her mixed media works and collages, some of which are on view at the Legion of Honor. In Outstretched (2019), feathery tufts flop over one figure’s face; another wears an electric-green shawl made from synthetic hair in Mirror Faced I (2020); sprawling roots, creeping vines, and a constellation of flowers fill Subterranea Stemmed (2021). The natural abundance of these works feels the most radical, defiant, and free of the institution in which they are placed. They are, as art historian Kristine Stiles has remarked, an example of Mutu’s “exacting reconstruction of shared states of collective subjectivity and cultural agency.”2 More, not less; spectrums, rather than binaries; plurals, hyphens, and creoles—Mutu’s cosmopolitan imagination is larger than the historical confines of the museum or gallery. Perhaps a suitable counterpart is not at the Legion of Honor but behind it at the Lands End nature preserve, where spiky leaves from the California dewberry coexist with the African fig succulent in a field of edible sea rockets, golden poppies, and nasturtiums. At the height of summer, the wildflowers grow unruly and lush, blossoming without a garden bed or trellis in sight.
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica and San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986), 79–80.
- Kristine Stiles, “Wangechi Mutu’s Family Tree,” Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2013), 51.